As mentioned in part 1 of the set on the Cavalry Corps’ crossing of the Potomac, the two divisions of Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton’s Cavalry Corps – Brig. Gen. John Buford’s 1st Cavalry Division and Brig. Gen. David M. Gregg’s 2nd Cavalry Division – fought a spirited series of actions in Loudoun Valley just prior to the Army’s crossing at Edwards Ferry. A third division, which was later formally assigned to the Cavalry Corps, under Brig. Gen. Julius Stahel, operated in the Northern Virginia area. Stahel’s division was ordered across the Potomac along with the Right Wing of the Army of the Potomac on June 25. This left the divisions of Buford and Gregg to cover the Army’s movements across the Potomac.
There are two interesting aspects of this operation from the cavalry perspective. Aside from the events of the actual crossing, the troopers were also engaged in what the orders cited as a covering operation. Although Hooker used the verb “cover,” the mission assigned did not conform to what the modern definition of a covering force operation, were we to impose such 20th century terms. Of the three basic cavalry security missions – screen, guard, cover – a screen mission sounds most applicable. Under a screen mission, cavalry will maintain surveillance of the enemy, avoid decisive engagement while maintaining contact, provide early warning, and impede any enemy advance. In a “bar room” definition, if you have a screen mission, you have to keep an eye on the enemy, but don’t get the freedom of action granted under a screening mission. Had Hooker required the Cavalry to prevent the Confederates from locating the crossing, the mission of course would then be classed as a “guarding” operation. And since no orders to develop the situation by directly engaging the enemy was issued, this was not a “covering” operation (although arguably the Loudoun Valley fighting the week before was).
When placed in perspective, if the Edwards Ferry crossing was one, if not THE, largest river crossing operation in the Western Hemisphere, then this screen assignment was among the most important conducted this side of the Atlantic. Thus, if one discusses the crossing, there should at least be a cursory examination of the effectiveness of that screening mission.
The orders issued on June 25 that set the Army in motion specified the Cavalry Corps would cover the operation until all the trains were across the Potomac. After crossing itself, Pleasonton was directed to send one division to Middletown, Maryland. [Note 1] Pleasonton broke that assignment down with Gregg’s division to replace Buford’s on the picket lines to allow the later to move across the Potomac first. Gregg was further ordered to gather all supply trains, including those on the road back to Fairfax, and forward the wagons to Edwards Ferry. These orders were forwarded while the Corps headquarters were stationed at Aldie. [Note 2]
Later that evening, Pleasonton, apparently relocating Poolesville, Maryland, refined the orders for Buford’s Division. Buford was instructed to cross his command at the Mouth of the Monocacy, minus his artillery and trains which would proceed to Edwards Ferry. The division would replenish supplies at Edwards Ferry. [Note 3] The lead element of Buford’s Division, Brig. Gen. Thomas Devin’s Brigade, arrived at Leesburg that evening, but did not have sufficient daylight to cross. [Note 4]
At this point, the movements of the commands becomes a little confusing. Gregg’s Division pulled out of the picket line, apparently in the evening of June 26-27. In fact, Gregg reports arriving in Leesburg at 1 a.m. [Note 5] Pleasonton instructed Gregg to coordinate with the engineers at Edwards Ferry, and to follow the Sixth Corps crossing. [Note 6] Furthermore, the Assistant Adjutant for the Corps, Lt. Col. A.J. Alexander, reported that Buford’s column was in motion for the bridge (assuming Edwards Ferry). [Note 7] Later in the evening of the 27th, a dispatch from the engineers at Edwards Ferry reported Buford’s Division across the river and Gregg’s command crossing. It is not clear if the engineers referenced Buford’s entire command or just the trains. [Note 8] However, in his official report of the campaign, Buford was rather clear about his crossing:
After passing the Potomac on the upper pontoon bridge, the division marched over almost impassable roads, crossing the Monocacy near its mouth by a wretched ford, and bivouacked on the east side of the mountains, 3 miles from Jefferson, being halted there by the whole train of General Stahel’s division blockading the road through the mountains. [Note 9]
Buford’s description leaves little room to question where his command crossed. Had the troopers forded the Potomac, there is no doubt he would have recorded at least one more “wretched” ford in his account. Likely the orders were changed, due to the high water at the intended ford, just not recorded. Buford’s brief description of the road beyond the bridges as “almost impassable” indicated the road network on the Maryland side of the river suffered from two days of traffic. And the mention of Stahel’s wagons alluded to the congestion and contention for right of way over the road network.
Although no dispatch related the exact time, Gregg’s Division was on the Maryland side by the evening of June 27. The Cavalry headquarters elements were also in motion at this time, moving from Poolesville to Frederick, Maryland. [Note 10] By the time General George Meade was placed in command of the Army of the Potomac, the Cavalry Corps was proceeding to the next set of mission objectives. Also worth noting, the logistics system shifted with the command. On June 26, Army Quartermaster Brig. Gen. Rufus Ingalls noted the last supply train for the Cavalry Corps and an issue of 700 horses forwarded from Alexandria. In a later dispatch, Ingalls ordered his subordinates to recover any unused supplies and equipment from Edwards Ferry, then likely shift to a depot in Frederick. [Note 11]
Of note, there is an absence of dispatches reporting picket activity from the Cavalry through out this time period. Pleasonton provided a summary report at 8:45 on June 26 (which was not received until the morning of June 26). In the report, he noted the Confederates strongly picketing the Blue Ridge passes, but largely vacant from Loudoun Valley. Another the following day generally repeated this situation. [Note 12] That said, one must ask if Pleasonton was indeed executing the mission to screen the Army’s passing with sufficient vigor.
I’m inclined to say Pleasonton’s command succeeded with their screening assignment. The requirement was to provide early warning should the Confederates attempt to either interfere with the crossing or slip back behind the Army of the Potomac (repeating the 2nd Manassas Campaign). That was accomplished, though largely because the threat perceived by the Federal commanders never existed. One might fault the commander for failing to detect and track both the main body of the Confederate army or Stuart’s command sweeping to the Federal rear. But while I’ll agree those were certainly important missions to accomplish in the last days of June 1863, the general in charge of the Army of the Potomac did not specifically request that service from his mounted arm. As is true all too often, a commander will only get what he asks for.
- Orders from Headquarters, Army of the Potomac, June 25, 1863, OR, Series I, Volume 27, Serial 45, p. 314.
- Orders from Headquarters, Cavalry Corps (Lt. Col. A.J. Alexander, Asst. A.G.) to Brig. Gen. D. McM. Gregg, Commanding Second Division, June 26, 1863, 1 a.m. OR, Series I, Volume 27, Serial 45, p. 333.
- Dispatch from Pleasonton to Alexander, June 26, 1863. OR, Series I, Volume 27, Serial 45, p. 336.
- Dispatch from Alexander to Pleasonton, June 26, 1863. OR, Series I, Volume 27, Serial 45, p. 337.
- Dispatch from Gregg to Pleasonton, June 27, 1863. OR, Series I, Volume 27, Serial 45, p. 349.
- Dispatch from Pleasonton to Gregg, June 27, 1863. OR, Series I, Volume 27, Serial 45, p. 349.
- Dispatch from Alexander to Pleasonton, June 27, 1863. OR, Series I, Volume 27, Serial 45, p. 349.
- Dispatch from Brig. Gen. H.W. Benham to Brig. Gen. Seth Williams, June 27, 1863, 8:35 p.m. OR, Series I, Volume 27, Serial 45, p. 353.
- Reports of Brig. Gen. John Buford, U.S. Army Commanding First Division (No. 337), August 27, 1863. OR, Series I, Volume 27, Serial 43, p. 926.
- Dispatch from Pleasonton to Gregg, June 27, 1863, 6 a.m. OR, Series I, Volume 27, Serial 45, p. 348.
- Dispatch from Ingalls to Pleasonton, June 26, 1863, 4:15 p.m. followed by a dispatch from Ingalls to Colonel Sawtelle at Alexandria, June 26, 1863. OR, Series I, Volume 27, Serial 45, pp. 338-9.
- Dispatch from Pleasonton to Brig. Gen. Seth Williams, June 25, 1863, 8:45 p.m. OR, Series I, Volume 27, Serial 45, p. 320; Dispatch from Pleasonton to Maj. Gen. Butterfield, June 26, 1863, 12:45 p.m. OR, Series I, Volume 27, Serial 45, p. 333.